The Extraordinary Lynne StewartThe late attorney demonstrated a lifelong commitment to defending controversial, poor, unpopular victims of injustice.
By Jeff Mackler / Counterpunch
Two incidents serve well to highlight peoples’ attorney Lynne Stewart’s extraordinary life in the service of humanity.
Charged with “conspiracy to aid and abet terrorism,” Lynne took the witness stand in early 2005 at the close of her nine-month frame-up trial presided over by Federal District Court Judge John Koeltl in New York City. Stewart was asked by her attorney, Michael Tigar, why she had issued a press release on behalf of her client, the “blind” Sheik and Egyptian cleric, Omar Abdel Rahman, when she knew that doing so was a violation of a Special Administrative Order (SAM) that prohibited Rahman from engaging in contact with anyone, anywhere, other than his attorneys. Rahman had been falsely convicted in 1995 of participating in a New York City terrorist conspiracy and was serving a life-sentence in Rochester, Minn.
The answer to that question, put to Stewart full square, stood at the core of her case. “Why not just appeal the SAM’s restrictions to a higher court?” Tigar continued.
The remainder of her life in prison rested on Lynne’s answer. The jury, 12 New Yorkers, sequestered during a trial in the same courtroom where in 1953 Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were sentenced to execution at the height of the McCarthy era, listened more than intently. The stakes were high. The prosecution was demanding a 30-year jail sentence.
Lynne’s sensational trial had all the earmarks of a government, in the name of its “war on terrorism,” preparing to shred whatever semblance of fair play remained in the criminal “justice” system. To put an attorney in jail for diligently representing her client was close to unprecedented—“a chill on the bar,” significant parts of the legal profession proclaimed.
The obliging Judge Koeltl, undoubtedly aware that government prosecutors aimed to directly link Lynne to terrorism, by hook or by crook, allowed the horror of the Sept. 11, 2001, Twin Towers terrorist bombings to enter and pervade his courtroom. He chose to base his heinous decision on the findings of an FBI search of Lynne’s law offices, where photos of Osama Bin Laden and other terrorists around the world were found. The judge disregarded the fact that all the photos and related files on worldwide terrorist activities belonged to one of Lynne’s co-defendants, her professional Arabic translator, Mohamed Yousry, whose NYU Ph.D. thesis and associated research on terrorism had been approved by his faculty adviser.
Lynne’s attorney, Michael Tigar, objected to the introduction of this material as hearsay—that is, as having no connection to Lynne or to the case at hand. In U.S. law the introduction of hearsay “evidence” is virtually banned. But Tigar’s motion was essentially circumvented by Koeltl with a deadly twist. He agreed that the material was hearsay and instructed the jury that it was not to be considered as fact or having any relation to the charges against Stewart. Yet he nevertheless allowed its introduction to, as he explained,“enable the jury to learn about the mind of the defendant.” I will never forget Koeltl’s vicious and duplicitous words.
His decision squared with the prosecution’s objective to link Stewart and her two co-defendants to terrorist activities everywhere. Delighted, the terrorist show trial was on as prosecutors proceeded to flood the walls of the courtroom, replete with giant and multiple theater-sized screens, with photos of terrorist activities—all aimed at associating Lynne with the government’s conception of an ongoing “worldwide terrorist conspiracy.”
In the end, some 90 percent or more of Lynne’s nine-month trial focused on this hearsay evidence, while the prosecution presented just a single witness to state that he had issued the SAM to Lynne. Not a single witness testified that Lynne had any connection to any terrorist activities anywhere.
Thus, Lynne’s answer to the question as to why she didn’t appeal this SAM to a higher court was crucial to her life itself. She might have argued that the SAM itself was ambiguous, that in the normal course of events when an attorney violates a SAM they are reprimanded or punished by being denied contact with their client for three months, and/or required to sign a new SAM.
I paraphrase Lynne’s remarks as I remember them in that rapt courtroom. I was astonished when she stated, “I have a friend in prison, Mumia Abu-Jamal. He filed a lawsuit to prevent his prosecutors from opening his mail, including from his attorneys.” Lynne continued, “Mumia Abu-Jamal won that suit but it took him some five years. My duty to my client required that under such circumstances, we not wait five years with regard to a harmless press release.”
Here was Lynne, at her personal, uninhibited, spontaneous best and craziest. With her life on the line she decided to bring the case of a dear friend and a convicted world-renowned “cop-killer,” Mumia Abu-Jamal, to the attention of the New York jury. No serious attorney would have recommended it. But Lynne, cut from another cloth, believed that Mumia’s case needed to be once again brought to public attention.
Her remarks were not scripted, not carefully presented to evoke sympathy, not offered to mitigate her SAM violation, but only to tell the jury, and the world, who she was—a human being who stood by Mumia to the end. This single incident tells us precisely what Lynne’s life and record as a people’s lawyer for the poor and oppressed was all about.
The final question asked to Lynne by her attorney was the clincher. “Lynne,” said Tigar, “if you had to do it all over again, would you have issued that press release?” I was within some 15 feet of Lynne and holding my breath for her answer. Lynne, once again, had a choice, the easy road of contrition, apology, and a plea for forgiveness, or the road to hell—in Lynne’s mind to socialist heaven—paved only with Lynne’s life-long humanistic and loving intentions and faith that she could penetrate the hearts and minds of the jury.
She responded, as her eyes welled up with tears, “I would hope,” she began and then paused. “I would hope that I had the courage to do it again.” She paused again, unable to speak—momentarily overcome by her emotions. She continued, “I would do it again!”
No apologies from Lynne Stewart. No legal or self-serving pleas to the jury that she had a made a mistake and should have taken the SAM to the courts. Lynne’s response evoked the passion of a movement fighter, of a champion of all that is beautiful in the human soul. Lynne Stewart, for whom the truth was required to preserve her very being, put it on the line that day, perhaps never stopping to think of the consequences. Would it be that we all had that courage and expressed it collectively in the kind of mass struggles that are capable of bringing this damn racist, sexist, imperialist system down forever. And when we do this, our martyrs will be resurrected in their full stature.
Needless to say, Lynne presented her persecutors and the jury with all the “facts” they needed. She was convicted.
Five years after her 2005 “terrorist conspiracy” conviction, when I headed Lynne’s defense committee on the West Coast, Lynne was cruelly sentenced to 10 years in a Texas prison, after vindictive federal prosecutors appealed the Federal Court judge’s sentence of some 30 months.
After serving three years in prison, UNAC and all of Lynne’s supporters mounted a great campaign that won the support of 70,000 social activists across the country. Lynne, cancer ridden, was finally granted “compassionate release” following her prison doctors’ diagnosis that she had less then a year to live. Lynne beat the odds and spent almost three years in freedom, continuing her lifelong commitment to defending all those victims of capitalist injustice.Lynne and I go back some 63 years, to 1954-58 when we were students at Jamaica High School in Queens, NY. We relished playing the role of silly pranksters when, 50 years later, we sang the Jamaica High School song together at many a solidarity meeting. There were always a few Jamaica High alumnae present to help rouse the crowd as we descended into our joyous and youthful childhood years.
Decades later, we taught school together in New York City and were union activists in the late 1960s, when we vehemently opposed the 1968 racist school strike led by the AFT’s reactionary leader, Albert Shanker. This was yet another critical diving line on the left, where Lynne and her husband, Ralph Poynter, chose the victims’ side rather than the side of their “respectable” oppressors, even if they were the union’s “leaders.”
In those days, young Lynne was often seen unconventionally riding on the back of Ralph’s motorcycle, on her way to this or that protest. A few years later, she decided to enter the legal profession and was mentored through Rutgers Law School by some of New York’s best attorneys for the damned.
Lynne was among Mumia Abu-Jamal’s most ardent supporters. Her court cases included some of the seminal Weatherman contests in the 1970s as well as an amazing victory on behalf of Larry Davis, who defended himself against a multiple cop-shooting invasion of his house, when a number of the shoot-first police were killed. Notwithstanding Davis’s drug-dealing record, his victory was hailed from the windows and rooftops of Harlem’s Black community, where wanton police murder of the innocent is the rule, not the exception. Only the most oppressed can fully understand the dimensions of the Larry Davis court victory. Lynne did too, a rare exception.
Pilloried by the corporate media, who mocked her every success in the rigged criminal “justice” system, Lynne never bent to her accusers’ contempt for an attorney for those on the other side of the class line, as Lynne aptly described it, no matter how unpopular her client.
A few more words about Lynne Stewart help round out her life:
Ralph Poynter, Lynne’s husband and partner, was a fighter for the oppressed in his own right. The two were inseparable. Lynne was always surrounded by family and loved ones, with children from her first marriage, and Ralph’s too, as well as kids they had together, and grandkids—all filled with admiration for Grandma Lynne—all the recipient of Lynne’s warmth, dedication, mindfulness and love.
Lynne was a frequent and always inspiring speaker at the national conferences of the United National Antiwar Coalition (UNAC), and was elected, in abstentia, to UNAC’s national bodies, as she was to Pacifica Radio’s WBAI official leadership.
Lynne was fond of saying, including to The New York Times reporter who interviewed her at her home a few weeks before her death, that she had no intention of leaving this earth quietly. Quoting Dylan Thomas, she told The Times, whose reporter followed the next day with a contemptuous hate piece reflecting his corporate master’s ire for everything wonderful in Lynne life and struggles, that she had no intention of “going gently into that good night.”
That was Lynne’s credo, her detractors notwithstanding. Always the poet’s words in mind, Lynne insisted:
Do not go gentle into that good night, Old age should burn and rage at close of day; Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
And she did, until her longstanding breast cancer had spread throughout her body, including her brain. Ralph explained a few days before Lynne’s passing on March 12 that her days were numbered, after two strokes rendered her in a near coma. But he told me that Lynne was still able to muster a faint smile as I challenged her to yet another dance in the months ahead and to continue debating our movement differences on this or that question that often found us in delightful exchanges over the years.
A New York City memorial meeting is set for April 22, followed soon after by a similar meeting with Ralph Poynter and others in the San Francisco Bay Area.
Editor’s note: Truthdig contributor Chris Hedges conducted a two-part interview with Lynne Stewart and Ralph Poynter in 2016. Watch the interview in both parts below:
Jeff Mackler is a staffwriter for Socialist Action. He can be reached at [email protected]Wait, before you go…
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